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What if the Prodigal Returns to a Ruined Farm?

prodigal returns

It’s one thing to remind students of Jesus they should belong to a local church, but what if the local church is neither safe nor healthy? Dissatisfaction with the church has led to the rise of the “Dones” and the “Nones” (those who are fed up with the idea of the local church, or those who have given up on the idea of any church affiliation). Use your imagination for a moment and consider the parable of the Prodigal Son: what if the prodigal returns to a place ruled not by the father, but by older brothers filled with judgment or manipulation? Or imagine returning home to a farm filled with nothing but children: some Evangelical churches focus on the new birth to exclusion of worship, community, or spiritual formation. Like a maternity ward, there are spiritual babies everywhere and no grown-ups in the faith.

What if the Prodigal Returns to a Ruined Farm?

Spiritual formation is about each of us developing the kind of relationship with the Master that leads to rest and peace. I’ve tried to avoid criticisms of the church at large because I have no voice or control over the church at large. Besides, church bashing is fun and easy (plus it’s irresponsible, requiring no particular insight or revelation). Anyone can do it. Yet it’s still true that our personal spiritual formation is not complete apart from the community God intended—the church.

How can we address the deep need for true community of the Spirit when there are churches empty of such life? How can we hold Christian prodigals accountable for their own hearts when some have left home out of self-preservation? And what about Christians who moved from one city to another—leaving behind a healthy church, and now unable to find a new home?

I have three things to say about when the prodigal returns, each one difficult:

1. To those who have been wounded by the church

I point toward the example of the Lord Jesus. John’s gospel reminds us, “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (John 1:11) Religious houses may be the places most in need of the presence of Jesus. In some churches a person of Christ like character will be welcomed by some and abused by others. Our calling to such a church may be especially difficult and sacrificial, but we will take our place among those Jesus calls “blessed” in the beatitudes.

2. To those searching for a new church home in a new city

I point toward the journey of Abraham. He “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.” (Hebrews 11:10) Abraham had seen the blueprint and was searching for where the Divine architect was at work. The benefit of a growing up in a healthy church home is that we will not settle for a poor substitute. Our past becomes the blueprint for the future. There is a difference between running from home and looking for a new one: Dr. Tolkien reminds us “not all who wander are lost.”

3. To those who have “high ideals” of what a church community should be

I remind you that there was no shortage of idealists in Jesus day. He welcomed those with high ideals—and tempered them with down-to-earth teaching about birds, flowers, foxes, wheat and tares. Jesus demonstrated the wisdom and true power that flows from keeping after the Father’s business. There is often a disparity between the builder’s plans and the worker’s craftsmanship.

It’s just too easy to complain about “church” in general, but how should we speak people of genuine faith, people of true goodwill, who cannot find a home in a local church? How can our actions and counsel make a place for those who believe there is no place for them? I’m not interested in “fixing the church at large.” That’s a fool’s errand, but how can we help our homeless brothers and sisters, when the prodigal returns to a ruined farm?


This article on the prodigal returns originally appeared here, and is used by permission.